1. “Welcome to the Walk Alone” (The Rumble Strips, Welcome to the Walk Alone)
Two paths cross at the scene of the crime. Two or more individuals collide with enough force to become, for a moment, a single interpenetrated entity that then breaks apart, leaving one part of itself behind to die. Once the murdered body is found, a murderer must be sought. A detective is enlisted to recover what is now missing, and to reconstitute the crime as a whole. Guided by curiosity, a sense of play – as Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game’s afoot!” – he starts looking for patterns and then for breaks in these patterns. Having come from far away, he remains largely immune to the psychic turmoil this event has induced among the locals. For the immediate community, it is a source of mounting distress: There is a killer among us! For the detective, it is rather an opportunity to work.
If, from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe onward, the detective becomes a narrative stand-in for the modern artist, it is mainly due to his detachment. In his expressionless way with expression, he is the epitome of austere formalism. Unlike the painter locked away in his studio, the detective may be out and about, at work in and among his public, but he never becomes integrated. As this public grows increasingly anxious and unhinged, he will instead reinforce the walls of his mental fortress. Locked inside himself, the detective, like the modern artist, shuts the public out.
From all sides he is assailed with questions that he refuses to answer on principle. The respect he is initially accorded will begin to wear thin. The detective’s silence takes on an accusatory tone because, as long as the case remains open, no one is free of suspicion. At any point, he could bring this case to a close; he could call out the guilty one, and let everyone else off the hook. Being on the side of the law and, by extension, the state, he should be working to restore order; why then won’t he do so? With each passing day, order sinks further into chaos. The longer his answer is withheld, the more the detective opens himself to blame, and not just for the isolated crime that started it all, but for the larger social collapse that follows. And, here again, one is reminded of the treacherous course of the modern artist who breaks away from a broken society: he wants, ideally, to fix it, but in actuality only manages to express its brokenness. It is a condition he did not cause, but for which he will inevitably come to be held responsible.
When at last the detective decides to unveil his great “masterpiece,” he assembles a target audience from out of the great common crowd, and explains to them just how little or much they had to do with its making. In the context of modernism, this audience would be comprised of the select cadre of connoisseurs that the artist can count on for support. Even if the finished work is wholly abstract, it remains a portrait of sorts of these people who have proved themselves to be most receptive to it. In this way, the field of reception is gradually narrowed. Increasingly, modern art does not even try to address society on the whole, but only those parts that have already been trained to understand what it has to say. In the detective story, this winnowing process is taken to the extreme, until there is just one person left: the one most understanding, the one “who done it.”
Like the detective, the murderer is an ambivalent figure, torn between the impulse to conceal and to reveal. Under the right conditions, the culprit who is wracked with guilt will welcome the opportunity to confess just as much as the unfeeling sociopath who is oppressed instead by anonymity and lack of recognition. Not anyone can serve as their outlet; not even any detective. The selection process is no less exacting on the part of the criminal than it is on the part of the detective. Both seek to meet their match and, if everything turns out as it should, the one who breaks will be joined with the one who can explain breaking as two halves of a reconstituted whole.
2. “Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’” (André Breton, Nadja)
In the scenario sketched out above, the detective plays a part closer to critic than artist proper. His area of expertise is “the art of murder,” and here the murderer would seem to take charge of the creative process. For his part, the detective can only answer back to what has already been said and done, at best to explain it. Artists are expected to originate, this is the goal of the creative process, but the detective can only bring this process to its conclusion.
The detective’s explanation is more than a mere supplement, however; it is the finishing touch on a work begun by the murderer. This work is promising enough to compel his interest and involvement, but it is by no means perfect. Straightaway, the detective senses its faults; these are the focal points of attention, and his way in. Obviously, he has not come here to honor the work of a criminal, but neither has he come to denounce it. The relation between these two is more complicated, vacillating, as it does, between collaboration and rivalry. Both of them are complicated as well in their relations to art – the first is unable to start a work, and the second is unable to finish it – but these flaws are what draw them together.
Here, as well, two paths cross and two individuals collide. However, as opposed to the isolated event of the crime that started it all, what follows will unfold in procedural time. From the first moment, when each has only just sensed the presence of the other in his midst, a sort of magnetic pull is generated between them: both the detective and the murderer are suddenly charged with purpose. The fog of “anything goes” arbitrariness that has shrouded their respective projects up until now begins to lift as the distance between them narrows. Both of them become increasingly determined and decisive in their actions, turning the arbitrary “anythings” into “this and only this.” Soon they will be “in the zone.”
If the murderer returns to the scene of the crime again and again, it is not only to relive the thrill of that original moment; he wants to live it now, through the person of another. His “other,” the detective, also periodically returns to this place, and for related reasons. What has been left behind there is somewhat like a stage upon which he can play the part of his own “other,” the murderer. The one “who done it” is a vague cipher at first, but with each performance he gains more definition. The murderer observes the detective’s progress from a safe distance, thrilled, as he gradually comes to connect with his character. By the final performance, the detective has effectively transformed himself into the “other” that the murderer will recognize as the “same.” He is moved at the sight of his own reflection, all the while knowing that this sameness is only an effect of resemblance, of representation, which moves him as well. It is to acknowledge the work of the detective as much as his own work that the murderer is finally drawn out of the shadows. As he answers back to the detective who has answered back to him, the two of them are bound together as a single self-completing unit, but, as we know already, such arrangements do not tend to last.
3. “The Aztecs observed a singular conduct with those who were about to die. They treated them humanely, giving them the food and drink they asked for. Concerning a warrior who brought back a captive, then offered him to sacrifice, it was said that he had ‘considered his captive as his own flesh and blood, calling him son, while the latter called him father.’” (Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share)
The arrest of the murderer resolves the detective story. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but before we start dreaming of new adventures, at least a short pause is in order. Two paths have crossed, and then crossed again; two individuals have collided, and then two more. What at first seemed like an isolated, freak incident has gained motivation through repetition. In the end, the culprit is surrendered to the authorities, and the detective leaves town as well. Neither one of them will be missed, but they will no doubt be remembered. What happened there happened to everyone, and they are reminded of it every time they pass by the scene of the crime. It has been explained to them, but not understood: what happened there?
It is suggested by Georges Bataille (as well as Friedrich Nietzche, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Mauss and many others) that group murder is the foundational event of human society. The so-called “primal horde” first becomes united as a circular formation that closes in around the one chosen to die. The act of murdering en masse implies a potential consensus that is fulfilled in the cry collectively released at the first sight of gushing blood. In time, this cry will be confined to the women only, whose phased ululations, or ololugé, mark the climactic peak of the ritual. Later still, these inhuman utterances will be tempered into a succession of “Amens” solemnly intoned by the members of the church congregation as they consume the symbolic remains of their crucified host. And then, as the church altar gives way to the dramatic stage, it will be suppressed even further: now it is left to the literary figure of the fallen hero to enact the separation that binds together those who remain standing – or rather, those who remain seated. That first cry of anguish is valiantly fought back in the darkness of the theater; stillness prevails, even as a slight shiver of catharsis travels up the spines of the audience.
The original binding charge of the sacrificial action weakens with each reenactment. In the end, it will come down to an aesthetic judgment call whether it is even worth the effort – the time, the cost – to go on with it. If the audience is given nothing real to believe in, then the best they can do is suspend disbelief, which is where the aesthetic comes in. The aesthetic convinces, and it is expected to do so without resorting to theatrical tricks. In the dis-illusioned context of the modernist “white cube,” the designation “theatrical” is only applied in a pejorative sense, to criticize works that have defaulted on their truth-telling mandate. Here we want to exercise our autonomy as viewing subjects in relation to objects that are themselves autonomous and indifferent to our being there. Conversely, the “theatrical” object only becomes activated in the eyes of the viewer. Under the glaring light spotlights, its lack of integrity is exposed; it requires us absolutely, which is why we can dismiss it as “needy.” However, if we weren’t so quick to move on, we would see that we are no less “needy.” Masking a hollow core, “theatricality” would make us feel full and substantial if we did not recognize our own reflections in the mask. In art as well, what at first appears “other” is actually “same”: its mask is a mirror.
4. “A strange arrogance compels us not only to possess the other, but also to penetrate his secret, not only to be desired by him, but to be fatal to him, too. The sensuality of behind-the-scenes power: the art of making the other disappear. That requires an entire ritual.” (Jean Baudrillard, “Please Follow Me”)
Cops may perform their duties out of a sense of civic obligation, or, more perversely, as a state-sanctioned outlet for their own anti-social drives. Perhaps it is to overcome the opposition between duty and desire – to “have it both ways” – that compels them to do what they do. Regardless, for the detective, what it is all for matters less than what it is, in itself. He is well aware of the ambiguities that come with the territory of the law whenever it assumes the moral high ground: underneath a thin crust of social composure, the evil currents keep right on churning. As one who also operates “under-cover,” he knows such deceptions inside out, yet his own cover is not “untrue.” The face beneath the mask looks just like it; the detective is inscrutably abstract through and through.
It is only the murderer who wears no mask, and who is thereby also the “truest” one of all. He is all expression, all gesture, all outside. Every one of his actions leaves a trace behind, and every trace is a secret signature that gradually fills up the world with his sinister presence. The detective walks in the tracks of his “other” to feel the first-hand thrill of marking second-hand. He does so selfishly, perversely, but also for the good of the community, so that the others won’t have to.
The community reacts to the murder viscerally as a scandalous offense against humanity. They read it as the very definition of the barbaric, the anti-social, the non-communicative, and they are not wrong to do so since murder literally is an enactment of communication breakdown. In order to repair the lines of communication on which the community is founded, they believe, the breaker must in turn be broken. This is the ancient law, and the detective is on the side of the law, but he is also on the side of the modern, and accordingly opposed to the ancient on principle.
As the one charged with restoring order, the detective is the executor of the collective will, but he no longer represents the collective. Before he leaves town, the detective furnishes an explanation that will essentially be misunderstood by everyone. Although his report is complete and accurate, it lacks any element of “human interest” that one could empathize with. Murder is passionate, but the detective’s language is not. Of course, the public is disappointed; secretly, they wanted to walk in the tracks of the murderer as well. For many or most, the explanation is utterly inadequate, but this is how it was designed to be. By way of abstraction, the detective has managed to cover every track left uncovered, his own tracks and those beneath them, without hiding a thing.
The report covers the scene of the crime without hiding it. The detective is not a cop, after all; he always leaves something behind for us to work with. The photographs have yet to be taken, the newspaper articles still to be written, and then the novels and their adaptation to film… Periodically, the stage-like setting of the detective’s reenactment of murder will be revisited by other reenactors. In time, it might even become one of those sacred sites (lieux sacrés) sought out by the Surrealists, or, in the language of Situationism, a flashpoint of psycho-geographical intensity.
5. “But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit?” (Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography”)
According Walter Benjamin, it is in the person of Eugene Atget that the practices of detection, flanerie and “man-on-the-street” photo-reportage first become fused into a single project. “Atget, who around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets,” he writes, “photographed them like scenes of crimes.” It is above all the emptiness of these streets that gives them their sinister aspect, Benjamin suggests. “A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence in the historical trial.” Like the detective, Atget is on the side of the law, but he is not a cop. He furnishes evidence that is true, though not easily deciphered, being much too limited in its scope and, at the same time, much too expansive. Typically confined to operating within an instantaneous “now-time,” the camera here submits to the transcendent demands of “the historical trial” – how is this possible?
Only as art: Atget’s work reminds us that the very first picture of a Paris street was deserted as well, even though it was taken on a crowded day. Erased in the course of a long exposure, the public was the first casualty of the new medium; all that is left of it (of us) is a ghostly mist. That picture was taken from on high, whereas Atget’s always share the same ground as their object. From the voyeuristic perch of “My Cousin’s Corner Window” (as per E.T.A. Hoffman), the photographer steps downstairs and out to become “The Man in the Crowd” (as per Edgar Allan Poe). Atget is there, in and among the invisible masses, which is to say that he is nowhere to be seen.
Or almost: a faint reflection of the man occasionally appears on a storefront window, standing behind or beside his cumbersome apparatus. Just barely visible, he holds our place in the picture, and not only to bear witness. In the witnessing, at the very least, one participates in the crime, thereby becoming a collaborator, a co-conspirator, a part-perpetrator. To Benjamin’s question – “But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit?” – Atget’s austere, expressionless photographs answer in the affirmative. In the black box of the camera, even, or especially, banality starts bristling with illicit intent. The photographer follows close behind the protruding lens, as do we; Drawn along by the medium, we retrain our eyes to see suspiciously.
The man-on-the-street photographer is the prototype of the artist who walks, who works while walking and whose work is walking. The Surrealists wandered aimlessly through the big city in pursuit of the ancient pathways underlying its rationalized make-over in asphalt and concrete. The Situationists traced their steps, dreaming up the battle-cries of May 1968 – “Under the paving stones, the beach!” – while disowning their legacy. The near-vacant night-time streets of Surrealist photography become crowded once more with living bodies as the cameras are put away. And then later, the camera returns and the street empties out again. In the post-studio practices of the seventies, every step the artist takes outside (into the real world) is scrupulously recorded for posterity, but once again he walks alone.
Hamish Fulton walks a lonesome country path, and then suddenly veers off it. Bas Jan Ader cuts straight through the city “in search of the miraculous.” Richard Long tramples a field of grass, back and forth, to leave a short straight line behind. Al Ruppersberg turns in circles, as if to catch sight of his absence from his own milieu – “Where’s Al?” And where is Sophie Calle when she hires a detective to follow her, or when she follows someone else as a detective? Where is the artist?
Calle implicates the novelist Paul Auster in the design of her disappearance, but he is only responsible for the working script, the fiction; she disappears into a world that is real. Two paths cross once more. The “right” path would have carried the artist through to safety, the armor of her fictive identity intact. The “wrong” path, the one that is taken, is troubled by the presence of an “other” that exerts an irresistible force of attraction. This figure approaches from the distance, their own exterior blinding and utterly illegible at first, but less so as it draws closer, until she can read in reverse what is inscribed inside: the secret sign of the self as the “mother of all others,” the hole-y father, the part of oneself that must die to keep watch over this place.